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Dr. Jan Westpheling is a Professor of Genetics in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Georgia. She received her B.S. degree in Microbiology from Purdue University. Jan worked as a Research Technician at Eli Lilly before going back to graduate school to earn her Ph.D. in Genetics from the John Innes Institute. She worked for a year for Biogen in Geneva, conducted postdoctoral research at Harvard University, and served on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School before joining the faculty at the University of Georgia where she is today. Jan is a two-time recipient of the Creative Research Medal from the University of Georgia, and she served as a Member of the National Research Council Committee on the Development and Acquisition of Medical Countermeasures against Biological Warfare Agents in 2005. Jan is with us today to tell us all about her journey through life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (02:12)
Jan lives on eight acres of old-growth forest and loves gardening. She has been planting specific trees to attract birds and also putting out bird feeders. As a result, her property is like a bird sanctuary, with owls and migratory birds coming through each year. Jan loves spending her time outside enjoying nature and the wildlife around her.
The Scientific Side (03:45)
In the lab, Jan is dedicated to her research on biofuels. Her lab group works to engineer bacteria that help convert non-food crop plants like switchgrass into useful fuels like ethanol.
A Dose of Motivation (06:04)
“All that glitters may not be gold, but at least it contains free electrons.” by John Desmond Baernal
What Got You Hooked on Science? (11:00)
Jan grew up in a small farming community in the south. Though she didn’t come from an academic family, Jan was interested in science from an early age and adored the TV show “Mr. Wizard” because of all the fun science experiments they did. In college, she pursued science and was inspired by one of her professors who was a renowned virologist and really taught her how to think through scientific problems.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (27:30)
It’s hard sometimes to battle feelings of intellectual inadequacy and to maintain confidence during turbulent times in your scientific career. Jan has struggled with instances where a grant she poured everything into was rejected without being discussed by the panel of reviewers. Another challenge in science are the bullies in the field who take advantage of situations to intimidate others and attack when you are most vulnerable. The best way to respond sometimes is to keep your head down, work hard, and let your science speak for you.
A Shining Success! (31:00)
Jan’s lab has had a lot of exciting successes with a project in her lab where they have engineered bacteria to produce biofuel from non-food plants in a sustainable way. Their paper published last year was the first example of a non-food substance being used to make biofuels directly without costly pretreatment steps. Some of the biggest successes in Jan’s career though have been when her students achieve great things like getting their dream jobs or publishing their first manuscripts.
Book Recommendations (32:00)
The Brethren by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, books on the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin.
Most Treasured Travel (33:25)
Rome is Jan’s favorite city in the world because of the friendly people, wonderful culture, and welcoming atmosphere. Her time spent in England was also really memorable, and she was surprised at how much she struggled with the unexpected language barrier. Jan ended up watching British soap operas to try to learn all the slang, how people really talked, and what people thought was funny.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (37:10)
Jan is a big practical joker. From sending fabricated reprimands from the Radiation Safety Office to her boss, to a deliciously iced packing foam “cake” that she served a colleague for his birthday, Jan has indulged in many hilarious pranks. Her lab currently has a tradition of an annual holiday party where they give each other embarrassing gifts that have to be proudly displayed on lab members’ desk for the next year.
Advice For Us All (40:40)
Choose the people you work with in your lab and in your collaborations very carefully. You should work with people you trust who care about science as much as you do. Also, do what you love rather than what is practical.
There are many challenges to converting biomass from crop plants such as Poplar or Switchgrass to biofuels (such as ethanol) and biomaterials. A critical component of the development of bio-based alternative fuels, such as ethanol and hydrogen, is the identification, characterization, and manipulation of microorganisms and biocatalysts for biomass conversion. Organisms and enzymes that can function at high temperature, 80-100 degrees C are especially useful for this conversion because the biomass material is typically pre-treated at high temperature before microbial or enzymatic conversion. Although the pursuit of biological routes to alternative fuels has been ongoing for several decades, recently available genomics-based approaches offer unprecedented access to novel enzymes and pathways for biomass conversions, making rational, genome-wide approaches for biocatalyst discovery and pathway identification that lead to enzyme production and metabolic engineering possible. An essential component of the application of modern technology to microbial and enzymatic biomass conversion is the ability to genetically manipulate extreme thermophilic microbes and the enzymes they produce. The focus of Jan’s research is to use functional and structural genomics-based methods, in conjunction with classical genetics and biochemical approaches, to identify novel biocatalytic (purified enzymes) and metabolic strategies (using whole cells) for bioenergy conversion. This work fits into the larger intellectual context of using classical (high temperature microbial bioprocessing, large-scale protein purification) and modern (structural genomics, bioinformatics, transcriptional response analysis, gene replacement/mutational analysis) approaches to study extremophile biology and biotechnology as this relates to bioenergy conversion.